It was inevitable the Chance Theater would eventually tackle A Chorus Line, a masterpiece of American musical theater that, while a bona-fide song-and-dance extravaganza, is also a strangely anti-musical musical. No bombastic score. No elaborate sets or production numbers. No creepy phantoms, helicopters falling from the ceiling or human-sized cats. No bullshit.
It seems inevitable because over the course of its 17-year history, the Chance has evolved from a ragtag group of friends with a ridiculous notion to form a theater in the hinterlands of Anaheim Hills (the flat part) into not only Orange County’s premier storefront theater, but also a major player in the Southern California theater landscape. And musicals have played an enormous part in that trajectory. In its earlier days, the musicals were, as so many musicals are at small theaters, uneven and ungainly, relying on moxie and audience familiarity with the source material over polished professionality and singular vision.
But it kept at it, and in 2009, with its heralded production of Hair, which received a slew of Los Angeles theater nominations, it was clear the Chance wasn’t content to be a bigger fish in the smallish pond of OC theater. Every season since, some highly successful, critically regarded musicals have trod its boards, from Jerry Springer: The Opera, to its homegrown world premiere, Loch Ness.
But it all seems to have led up to A Chorus Line, which is not only the finest musical to ever tap, pirouette and gyrate across an Orange County stage not named Segerstrom, but also one of the best shows to ever be produced in the county.
The play is a Valentine to theater and the complicated weirdos who choose it as a vocation or avocation. But it’s also a metaphor for how committed people are to pursuing their individual dreams—even when those dreams are on the verge of flickering out and have become as much a curse as a blessing. It won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1976 for its honest, stripped-down account of the flesh-and-blood people who comprise the background of a big Broadway show, relaying their stories through one long day at a casting call. But its enormous success (it was the longest-running show in Broadway history until Cats upended it) has also made it a cliché of sorts, with many people rolling their eyes at the thought of watching a bunch of preening, posing performers high-kicking and jazz-handing to a bunch of cheesy songs.
But this Oanh Nguyen-directed effort is anything but pomp and circumstance. At two hours and 20 minutes, the intermissionless show is tightly paced and keenly focused on the piercing human stories that are its heart. Augmented by Hazel Clarke’s energetic but tasteful choreography, a solid five-piece live band and a remarkable ensemble, Nguyen and company have created a show that is as entertaining and mesmerizing as it is poignant and heartfelt.
Singling out anyone in the cast is unfair to the collective unit. But whoever said theater is fucking fair? Ben Green’s Zach, the director/choreographer/voice of God running the audition, is solid, equal parts drill sergeant and empathetic tour guide through the group psyche. Camryn Zelinger plays the cynical, (relatively) aging Sheila with panache and sensitivity; Kristen Daniels’ Maggie is a minor major player, but her voice is difficult to not notice. Angeline Mirenda’s saucy Diana, who gets the show’s one stand-alone number, “What I Did for Love,” kills it, and Xavier Castaneda’s achingly damaged Paul is also a standout. But, again, every performer gets his or her moment to shine, and their individual efforts are less important than the collective work.
And that seems to be the main thrust of Nguyen’s directorial vision. He doesn’t seem interested in re-interpreting or modernizing the play as much as stripping away the predictable show-bizzy aspects and focusing on the actual story, which is truly composed of the stories of the nearly 20 main players. It’s still set in 1975, and many of the references to things such as Ed Sullivan and Ann Miller may not ping on all but a senior’s radar, but Bradley Lock’s costume design feels decidedly contemporary without making too much about it. That reinforces the point that what matters here isn’t visual trappings or phony gimmicks, but the very real, joyful and scared people yearning for some kind of break, some kind of affirmation that what they’ve chosen to expend their energies on is all worth it.
That is sweetly borne out early in the play when, after the first cut, six dancers are sent home. But they don’t leave; they peel to the sides of the stage and sit, watching the proceedings just like the audience. It’s a key indicator that this story isn’t about winners or losers, but about all those who, for whatever reason, continue to keep playing.
A Chorus Line at the Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (888) 455-4212; www.chancetheater.com. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through July 31. $35-$45.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???